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National Democrats hesitant about Florida, hindering voter outreach efforts

Questions about Democrats’ competitiveness in Florida have multiplied in recent years.
The first voters of Election Day enter Precinct #543 at the Crystal Beach Community Hall as polls open on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Pinellas County.
The first voters of Election Day enter Precinct #543 at the Crystal Beach Community Hall as polls open on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 28|Updated May 1

Liberal grassroots groups in Florida are reducing staff and scaling back voter-outreach efforts because of a growing reluctance from out-of-state donors to spend money on the state, say top progressive strategists.

If the financial pullback continues, they warn, it threatens not only the party’s chances in this year’s slate of midterm races but also Florida’s place as a top-tier battleground in the 2024 presidential election.

“There is a debate happening,” said Greg Speed, president of the national progressive organizing group America Votes. “And some think, due to Florida’s size and recent disappointments, we should shift resources and focus elsewhere.”

America Votes, which has helped organize voters in the state since 2007, is one of the groups shrinking its footprint, planning to ditch a statewide organizing effort in favor of a regionally focused one.

After years of “massive investment” in turnout operations, Speed said, this year’s effort “is shaping up to be more regionally focused and probably smaller overall.”

Other groups in the state are struggling to hire and retain staff because the lack of interest from national donors has scrambled budgets, said Raymond Paultre, executive director of Florida Alliance, a network of progressive donors. Paultre says that, in conversations, many national donors are blunt with their pessimism about the state’s politics and their lack of interest in investing.

“They’ll tell you we’re not on the map,” he said. “They’ll go, ‘You’re not on our map.’ It’s not over-complicated.”

Concerns about Democrats’ competitiveness in Florida have festered on the left ever since former President Donald Trump’s victory here in 2016.

But liberal strategists say that, while it’s not too late to turn things around, what they’re seeing now makes them concerned that Florida is entering a dangerous new phase, in which the failure of past elections saps resources for future races and makes winning even harder — pushing the party into a kind of death spiral here that could turn a former swing state into one Republicans dominate for a generation.

“It often feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy that there’s anxiety and reluctance to invest in Florida because it’s large and complex,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of Florida Rising, a progressive organization that advocates for economic advancement and racial justice.

“I think the right wants you to believe that Florida is not winnable for Democrats because they have no path without Florida,” she said.

Ultimate battleground?

In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, left, and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore gesture during a debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
In 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, left, and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore gesture during a debate at Washington University in St. Louis.

Florida has famously sat at the center of the country’s politics since 2000, when a contentious weekslong recount between Al Gore and George W. Bush ended with the Texas governor’s victory by just 537 votes.

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Ever since, it’s been the home of some of the nation’s most competitive federal and state races, with the winning candidate often winning by only a sliver of the overall vote.

The state’s size and unique population have also made it a magnet for national attention and money, and it’s been a top focus of nearly every recent presidential campaign.

But a string of recent stunning defeats, including Trump’s dual triumphs in 2016 and 2020 and the success of Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2018 midterms, have changed the perception of the state, party strategists acknowledge.

Democrats lost the last presidential race here despite a late $100 million investment from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, concentrated largely on TV ads.

Meanwhile, South Florida, where Democrats must do well to win statewide races, swung hard to Trump in 2020, with the former president improving his margins over 2016 in majority-Hispanic Miami-Dade County by more than 200,000 votes.

And despite launching several high-profile voter registration efforts in recent years, Florida Democrats haven’t been able to catch up with Republicans’ voter registration machine across the state.

Last year, Republicans overtook Democrats for the first time in Florida history, now having over 100,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, according to data from the Florida Division of Elections through the end of March.

Related: Republicans make Florida history, pass Democrats in voter registrations

Now, the state can often feel more like a showcase for Republican politicians like Scott or DeSantis, who some allege are more worried about winning over GOP voters nationally than impressing moderate voters back home because they think they have little to fear from Democrats.

“2016 was brutal on the whole Democratic community,” said Steve Schale, a longtime strategist in the state. “There was a lot of money spent in Florida, a lot of optimism that Florida was going to work out, and it didn’t go that way. Then there was a lot of hype built up around (2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew) Gillum.

“So when those two things went the way they did, and with the way 2020 worked out, I understand people looking at Florida with great skepticism,” added Schale.

Marcus Dixon, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, pushed back against assertions that Florida is becoming irrelevant for progressives.

“Florida is still in play because winning here would cut off every reasonable path for Republicans to win the Presidency. We can’t rely only on duplicating close margin wins in other states,” Dixon said in a statement. “We have great candidates running in 2022 that are more aligned with the needs and interests of Florida voters and we are continuing to build the robust ground operation we did not have in 2020.”

Dixon added that “everyone is at the table,” including the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Governors Association and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Still, the pessimism extends to the slate of in-state races in 2022, where for the first time in decades, the state feels like an afterthought. DeSantis is a strong favorite to win reelection against whichever Democratic nominee emerges from the primary.

Related: Ron DeSantis' fight with Disney helped him break fundraising records

In U.S. House races, the party has failed to recruit top-flight candidates to run against Republicans in two competitive South Florida seats that were flipped by Republicans by about 3 percent of the vote.

Democrats are also bearish about Rep. Val Demings’ chances of unseating GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.

Many describe the Orlando-area congresswoman — whose prodigious fundraising and law enforcement background have impressed national Democrats — as the lone bright spot for the party this year. But her candidacy comes in a year when Democrats across the country are already bracing for a difficult election, in a political environment that has turned in the GOP’s favor amid President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, right.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, right. [ AP and Tribune News Service photos ]

Coupled with Florida’s own rightward turn during the Trump era, it’s enough to convince many donors they’re better off pouring money into other states.

“You always tend to pull back when you think you’re going to lose,” said John Morgan, a former Central Florida Democrat turned independent donor. “There’s only so much money to go around. And when you read the tea leaves, it doesn’t look good for Florida, for Democrats.”

Privately, party strategists are even more pessimistic about the state, comparing it to former Midwestern battlegrounds like Iowa or Ohio that have swung so decisively toward the GOP over the last decade that Democrats struggle to even compete statewide there.

In one interview, a national Democratic strategist checked off a list of more than a dozen states that were a greater priority this election cycle than Florida, while other operatives say they agree that the party should focus instead on new battlegrounds like Arizona and Georgia.

“Democrats collectively feel a little like Charlie with the football with the state of Florida,” said Tyler Law, a national Democratic strategist. “It takes a massive amount of resources and a deep understanding of the state’s unique and varied political cultures to be successful there.”

Democrats fret about midterms

The skepticism of national donors hasn’t prevented Demings from setting fundraising records of her own, having hauled in more than $30 million already for her Senate campaign, with $13 million on hand — thanks mostly to small donors.

But while candidate fundraising can fund many kinds of election-related activities, like TV commercials or on-the-ground voter outreach efforts, groups like America Votes and those organizations funded by Florida Alliance often do long-term organizing work that monthslong campaigns can’t.

Related: Democrats express optimism at Tampa fundraiser despite GOP victories

Without those efforts, Republicans will know Democrats are on the verge of conceding the state, strategists say. “It lets Republicans know we’re lunchtime,” Paultre said. “The air support is not coming. And we’re just going to blitz you.”

Paultre and Speed say their groups will still have a strong on-the-ground presence this year, including registering new voters. But other voter outreach efforts long taken for granted might not materialize.

“In 2022 it may be very hard to organize and knock doors in the fastest-growing parts of the I-4 Corridor, like Polk County, because we’d need to focus limited resources on core turf in Orlando and Tampa,” Speed said.

And some grassroots groups, Paultre said, have had their budgets scrambled because of concerns about money, forcing them to hold off on staffing up or even, in some cases, lay off employees.

“People have had to be let go,” he said. “Organizations have had to shrink. We’re not able to hire.”

Paultre expressed frustration that, in his view, the conversations among national donors are starting to bleed over into even the in-state Democratic donor base, some of whom might be excited by a local race but find themselves talked out of it after a round of conversations about the hopelessness of the state’s politics.

Many of the people offering those assessments haven’t done enough homework, he said.

“Everybody has to have a Florida opinion, and most people shouldn’t have one,” Paultre said.

A roll of "I Voted!" stickers are shown, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla.
A roll of "I Voted!" stickers are shown, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Deja vu

Veteran party strategists point out that they have dealt with this kind of pessimism about Florida before. As recently as 2004, Bush won the state by five points — higher than Trump’s margin of victory in 2020 — and many national Democrats began writing it off as a true battleground. Four years later, Obama won Florida, before winning it again in 2012.

“The thing is, it’s not like Trump won Florida by 3 million votes,” Schale said. “He won it by 3 ½ points.”

Schale and other Democratic strategists protest that despite recent results, much of the skepticism about the state is otherwise unwarranted — what Mercado blames on an “emotional narrative” untethered to data.

The state’s population is still rapidly diversifying, they say, and vote-rich areas like Duval County have trended toward the party in recent elections.

And they add that the party can’t both be serious about confronting its nationwide problem with Latino voters and, at the same time, ignore a state like Florida. In the 2020 election, Trump earned more support from Latino voters across the country than he had in 2016, including in places like Miami-Dade County and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, even as he fared worse overall.

“You can’t care about Latino voters and not fund in Florida,” Mercado said.

Democrats are also quick to point out that, although a disappointment, losing the state in 2020 didn’t necessarily mean the party made a strategic failure trying to win it. Spending money here forced Trump and the GOP to make investments of their own, funds that would otherwise have been spent in battlegrounds he lost, like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

At a time when candidates routinely smash fundraising records, and with 30 electoral votes at play, abandoning the state might not make sense even if the party’s chances at victory here are slim.

“Given the resource situation that people now find themselves in, when they’re not confined by the limits of federal funding, it’s hard to imagine why you’d take Florida off the list,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, a former adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns.

But if the party wants to have a chance at victory in 2024, strategists say, national donors can’t pull back from the state. Underinvestment in Florida over the last decade has already enabled Republicans like DeSantis to win, they argue, and the only way to stop GOP victories long term is to start spending money now.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What are we going to do about DeSantis?’” Paultre said. “Invest in a … time machine, go back 10 years, and build the kind of progressive infrastructure that would prevent Ron DeSantis from doing what he’s doing.”

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